Swing Time

The unnamed narrator in Zadie Smith’s Swing Time met her best childhood friend Tracey at a Saturday dance class at a church near the London housing estates where the two girls lived. Both girls were poor and bi-racial, but their families were otherwise very different. The narrator’s mother was an ambitious black woman who spent her time studying, leaving much of the child care to the narrator’s white father. Tracey’s father was mostly absent, and her white mother doted on her, but didn’t maintain anything close to the high standards of the narrator’s mother.

As the girls grew up, they drifted apart, as often happens. It’s evident early on, however, that there some sort of complication would make the rift severe and permanent. Smith takes her time getting there, however, instead turning the story toward the narrator’s career as the personal assistant to a pop star named Aimee. The work is all-consuming, and when Aimee decides to make the education of African girls her cause, the narrator finds herself traveling to an unamed African country (probably Gambia).

There’s a lot going on in this novel, and Smith arranges the story in multiple timelines, swinging between the narrator’s memories of Tracey and her present life with Aimee and her work in Africa. For me, the childhood story, especially the girls’ fascination with dance was, by far, the most exciting. The girls spend hours watching dance routines from old movies, especially Fred and Ginger. When they discover Jeni LeGon, they’re entranced. Here was a tremendous dancer who looked like them, especially Tracey. Yet she’s surrounded by troubling African imagery. And then there’s that Fred Astaire routine that the narrator adored as a child and was shocked to realize as an adult was performed in blackface.

The story of dance provides lots of great material for exploring issues of race and appropriation, and it looks for a while like that’s going to be a major theme of the book. But them Smith broadens out to consider the ways those with wealth can simultaneously help and exploit those without it. These, too, are worthwhile themes, but I didn’t find Smith’s handling of them particularly compelling.

Part of the problem is that the narrator and Aimee are the only characters that really come to life in the African sections. And the sections themselves were sort of tedious. It was hard to get a read on what they were doing in Africa—or what they thought they were doing. There’s a lack of the kind of detail that made the childhood-focused chapters so wonderful. I ended up with a general sense that the work just wasn’t as helpful as it was meant to be but I can’t really explain why.

Even though I think this book has some significant flaws, on the whole, I did enjoy it. The parts that were good were so very excellent that they made plowing through the dull sections worth it. With six books from the Booker longlist read, I’d put it at the bottom, but it’s still ahead of anything on last year’s list.

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Autumn

I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did this out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity.

I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elisabeth says.

I’m tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says.

I picked up this book after hours of watching news of violence coming out of Charlottesville. I was feeling numb to it all, and this passage above caused me to burst into tears. Then that little joke at the end made me smile. But, really, isn’t pusillanimosity the perfect word for what happened this weekend?

Such is the genius of Ali Smith, that her novel set largely around the time of the 2016 Brexit vote in England could extend beyond that to take in feelings of distress as experienced all over the world.

Although the book does concern itself with politics and how those politics touch individuals and how those individuals respond, that’s not it’s only focus, perhaps not even its primary one. I think what its really about is how we see each other and how we want to be seen. It’s about the stories we tell about our lives and others and how it all fits together.

The book’s main character is a 32-year-old woman named Elisabeth. When Elisabeth was a child, she became friends with an elderly neighbor named Daniel. Daniel introduced Elisabeth to what her mother called “arty art,” and he encouraged her to think. And Elisabeth came to love him. Now, Daniel, at age 101, is dying, and Elisabeth visits him regularly to read to him.

As Daniel lies in his hospital bed, he dreams of youth and life, sometimes of being in a young body, sometimes of becoming one with nature. His dreams include images from stories he shared with Elisabeth. The dreams don’t always make sense, because they’re dreams.

The whole book has a sort of dreamlike quality, with the story drifting around in time, one idea or image leading to another. Not every bit of it worked for me, and sometimes the drifting around was too much, but that’s my love of story speaking. My love of language, however, was fully sated by this book. It’s a book of thoughts and images, and these Ali Smith handles exceptionally well. I loved it.

Once again, this year’s Booker longlist proves to be far and away better than last year’s.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 13 Comments

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

This ambitious novel by Arundhati Roy begins with the story of a woman named Anjum. Born intersex, Anjum was raised as a boy, but as soon as she was able to choose for herself she gave herself the name Anjum and went to live with a group of Hijra women in Delhi. Eventually, she created a new home community for herself in a derelict graveyard. Her story is intimate, focused on a few characters living their lives separate from the political unrest happening around the country. When they get caught up in violence, it’s by chance, not choice.

But after about 100 pages, the book takes a turn and we meet a new group of characters—a woman named Tilo and the intelligence officer (Biplab), freedom fighter (Musa), and journalist (Naga) who love her. Their story shifts from Delhi to Kashmir and back again, each taking a side in the war for Kashmir, and those choices affect their relationships with each other. Here, the book’s scope expands, and the Anjum story is left behind. The connection between the two is hinted at, but not spelled out until the conclusion, where all the major characters come back together, and their fates are revealed.

As I was reading, I found the shift in scope frustrating and the section about Tilo unecessarily confusing. Roy does not tell the story chronologically. She begins by having Biplap, the book’s only first-person narrator, share his memories in flashback—sometimes with flashbacks inside flashbacks. And then she runs at some of the same events as experienced by Musa, Naga, and Tilo. With each new telling of the same story, we get new information, and events that seem mysterious and incomprehensible take clearer shape. On reflection, I find this pretty ingenious although I struggled to really settle into the book.

Part of the struggle  is due to my own ignorance of the history of India and Kashmir. Roy refers to events, such as the 1984 Union Carbide explosion, that I vaguely remember hearing about, and I know there have been conflicts in Kashmir, but I don’t know much about them. This, of course, isn’t Roy’s fault, and I wouldn’t necessarily expect her to cater to my level of ignorance. It is, however, worth noting that if you’re like me and decide to read this, that you may need to consult Wikipedia once in a while to get your bearings.

In the end, I think that Anjum’s story and Tilo’s story could have been better tied together, although I think Roy is getting at some interesting ideas about identity and choice by telling both of these stories in the same novel. It is, at times, a very sad story, but there’s warmth and humor to it as well. It’s not my favorite among the Booker longlist, but it is excellent. In fact, all four books that I’ve read from this year’s list are superior to anything on last year’s list. Although Lincoln in the Bardo is my favorite so far, I’d have a hard time choosing between Exit West, The Underground Railroad, and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. All of them are fine novels, with some flaws. Here’s hoping the rest of the list is as strong.

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The Prime Minister

prime ministerTeresa and I have been slowly making our way through Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, and The Prime Minister is the fifth. This book splits itself into two threads, which brush each other but don’t influence each other heavily. One is the story of Ferdinand Lopez, a man of Portuguese descent who makes his money (such as it is) on speculation in the City, and his pursuit of Emily Wharton, a wealthy gentleman’s daughter and a lady to the tips of her fingers. The second returns us to the political fortunes of Plantagenet Palliser, who has been made the (guess what) Prime Minister, and the way he and his still somewhat indiscreet wife Glencora react to their new position in the world.

Jenny: This was a long book — nearly a thousand pages. Did you find that, over time, it held your interest? Was one of the stories more interesting than the other for you?

Teresa: It did! The only point where my interest started to flag even slightly was during the political machinations toward the end, but that’s mostly to do with my lack of understanding. I cared about how it would turn out for the characters. And Emily’s story could have ended a chapter or two earlier, once the outcome was obvious.

As for which I enjoyed more, Emily’s story was certainly the more intense and gripping. But I became so fond of Plantagenet Palliser in this book. His tendency to be almost too principled was a balm to my soul.

Jenny: I felt the same. I found out by accident a few days after I finished the book that decimal coinage didn’t happen in Britain until a hundred years later. A hundred years! Poor Planty Pall. I could have wept. He was the soul of honor, for himself and Glencora. And she turned up trumps here, too, even if she made mistakes. She really loved him, even when she was exasperated with him; she could see how fine he was even if it grated on her sense of timing.

Ferdinand Lopez was, of course, the polar opposite of the Prime Minister. He was a greedy liar; he was dishonorable and low; he was cruel and self-centered. About the only thing you could say for him is that he had all the cheek in the world — he wasn’t much of a coward. But what a man to read about.

Teresa: The thing about Lopez is that it takes quite a while to see what he is. For the first third or so of the book, there are hints that there might be money problems, but there have been lots of decent men with money problems in the series. The main objection anyone has to him is that he’s a foreigner and possibly Jewish. Mr. Wharton is clear that his concerned is mostly that he doesn’t know anything much about Lopez, and I can understand being worried about a total stranger marrying your daughter. Still, the panic among practically all of her acquaintances put me Lopez’s side until his greed surfaced.

One of the things I wonder is, how sincere was his love in the first place?

Jenny: I totally agree with you that the outspoken prejudice against Lopez inclined me to trust him. My question is, did Trollope expect that reaction a hundred and forty years later or so? Were we supposed to see him as an untrustworthy person because he was Portuguese and possibly Jewish and a speculator? Or were we supposed to be inclined to take his part, as Emily did, because so many people were against him?

I think Trollope makes it clear that Lopez loves Emily in his way, or as much as he can. But I think he would have chosen someone else to love in that way if she hadn’t been rich. There’s an incident close to the end of the book that makes me think it was more about the money than the girl, though probably about the girl in some sense as well.

Don’t you think that Quintus Slide has been, over time, even lower than Ferdinand Lopez? This book was, again, a real attack on the tabloid press.

Teresa: Quintus is one of those nasty people who keep popping up again and again. I felt so bad for poor Phineas, remembering what the press did to him. And in this book, he held the fate of the nation in his hands.

The presence of people like Quintus Slide is one of many ways that Trollope is still relevant today. The specifics may have changed, both in politics and in love, but the same types of people continue to exist.

So we’re now left with just one book in our Palliser adventure. Oddly enough, The Duke’s Children was my first introduction to Trollope when I read it in college. I’m looking forward to revisiting it with a much fuller knowledge of the characters’ histories.

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Lincoln in the Bardo

I like George Saunders’s short stories, but I was skeptical of his first full-length novel. The premise—Abraham Lincoln surrounded by a chorus of ghosts at his son’s grave—seemed like something that could just be plotless introspection. I’d don’t need books to be chock full of activity, but I do want some story. It turns out that this book has a high-stakes plot. It just tells it in an unconventional way.

The book’s short chapters fall in one of two categories. Some are cobbled together from actual primary sources about Lincoln at the time of his son Willie’s death. And when I say cobbled together, I mean that most of these chapters are literally a series of quotes, sometimes just a sentence or phrase, put in order to form a narrative. As best as I can tell, most of these are real sources, but the account they present is not meant to be a definitive narrative, with Saunders sifting through sources to get at the truth. Saunders sometimes arranges the excerpts to highlight contradictions, such as the state of the moon as Willie died, and he doesn’t attempt to sort out which one is accurate.

The majority of the chapters, however, are narrated by the spirits of people at the graveyard where Willie Lincoln is interred. They ponder their own lives before their deaths, and comment on what’s happening around them. When Willie Lincoln’s spirit appears, they begin to urge him to move on, because, as one ghost, Roger Bevins III, says “these young ones are not meant to tarry.” Young ones who stay become trapped and tormented. And so the book’s plot becomes the ghosts’ quest to urge Willie Lincoln to move on.

The difficulty is that Willie’s father has come back to the grave, even going to far as to take his son’s body out of what the spirits call his “sick box” to cry and remember. The ghosts are drawn to Abraham Lincoln, struck by his grief, the levels of which are rare for them to see. And Willie doesn’t want to miss the chance to see him again once he leaves.

It took me a while to get oriented to the ghosts’ sections. There are a lot of voices, and although each is pretty distinct, it took me a while to work out who’s who. And not all of their stories ever became clear, but that’s no different than what happens when reading any book with a large cast of characters. There are a few who do stand out, and gradually the story led me to wonder why they are still there. We get an answer from one, a minister who ran from the gates of judgment, but others’ reasons are unclear for most of the book. But that’s ok. I knew enough to care.

Much of the book concerns itself with the ways we cling to life, our own lives and the lives of those we love. Some of the spirits are caught up in memories of people they’ve left behind. A few are even accompanied by spirits of those they know. The rules of how it all works is never made clear, but I don’t think it needs to be. The main idea is that life has value, but it is transitory. So each moment has value.

I’m interested in Saunders’s choice to use Lincoln to tell this story. It could be about any parent and child. I suppose the idea is that even the greatest among us are caught up in this struggle of life and death. The spirits in the graveyard represent many different walks of life. There are enslaved people, a minister, a pedophile, a scholar, a mother, and on and on. The child of a president is not immune to death, and a president is not protected from grief. There’s a moment in which the spirits speak to Lincoln in a way that may have changed history—I thought this was a little too much as it felt thrown in to raise the stakes. The main story here is a universal one, that cuts across time and status.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 8 Comments

Exit West

Once again, Frances, Meredith, Nicole, Rebecca, and I (aka the WoMan Booker Shadow Panel) are reading the Man Booker longlist together (or as many as we can get to). I read The Underground Railroad a while ago, so this is my second book from the longlist.

In an unnamed city on the brink of war, two young people named Nadia and Saeed fall in love. Nadia, who wears a body-covering robe not out of religious conviction but for protection from men, left her family to get her own apartment and go to school. Saeed is more devout, praying as his parents taught him, but he’s not so strict that he won’t listen to music and smoke weed with Nadia. The two first meet in an evening class that they both take, and through coffee and conversation, Saeed wins over Nadia.

Of the couple’s steps into romance, Mohsin Hamid writes,

It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class—in this case an evening class on corporate identity and product branding—but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering abut our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.

It was striking to me how long ordinary life went on for Saeed and Nadia. With every step that the war took toward their homes, they made small adjustments. Eventually, however, small adjustments weren’t enough.

Their story is interspersed with short vignettes showing people stepping through doors. These doors, it turns out, have mysteriously begun appearing around the world, and refugees are using them to escape. And when Saeed and Nadia learn of these doors, they decide they have to try to use one. And then another…

This is the second book the I’ve read from this year’s Man Booker longlist, and it bears some resemblances to the first, The Underground Railroad. In both books, the author uses an impossible portal to move his characters from one sort of world to another. In The Underground Railroad, Cora ends up moving from one piece of America’s racist past to another, almost seeming to move through time. In Exit West, Hamid tears down borders, bringing waves of refugees to the heart of London and, later, California.

Hamid’s story focuses not just on the difficult conditions refugees face but on how the circumstances stretch the people experiencing them and their relationships with each other. In a way, war brings Saeed and Nadia together, and it keeps them together longer than they might have been. And that’s not a bad thing. They clearly love each other, but what isn’t clear is whether it’s an enduring love or a transitory one.

I was absorbed in the main story, and I thought the portals from one place to another worked well. That little bit of unreality allows Hamid to speculate on how countries that are able to distance themselves from the refugee crisis would respond. But, more important I think, he’s speculating on how people come together. He spends very little time on the political responses, focusing instead on the refugees’ day-to-day experiences. These refugees are from all over, and they form their own societies because they have to. And it’s ultimately an optimistic book, I think, about how people can come together.

I’m still mulling the vignettes about other doors, with other unnamed characters worked. I found some of these, frankly, confusing to read because they came out of nowhere and offered barely a glimpse into these other situations. If they were going to be there at all, I wanted more of them. More of each story, and perhaps more stories.

On the whole, however, I liked this book a lot. The writing is delicate and lovely, even when writing about great pain. I think that’s because it is ultimately a hopeful book about the power of connection, rather than an expose of the pain (like The Underground Railroad). There’s room for both types of books, I think, and I’m glad that both exist. I might rank this slightly higher than Underground Railroad because of the characters, but I’d be happy to see either make the Booker shortlist.

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A Tale for the Time Being

tale for the time beingLet me tell you about this book.

No. It is too much. Let me sum up.

Ruth, an author living on a remote island off the coast of Washington*, finds an odd piece of jetsam: a Hello Kitty lunchbox that contains a Japanese teenage girl’s diary, disguised as Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Much of the novel is in the bright, self-aware, vivid voice of Nao, who begins her diary like this:

Hi!

My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be. As for me, right now I am sitting in a French maid cafe in Akiba Electricity Town, listening to a sad chanson that is playing sometime in your past, which is also my present, writing this and wondering about you, somewhere in my future.

Nao starts out to tell the story of her grandmother’s life — Jiko, who is a 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun, and a splendid character — but she winds up telling her own. She has a lot to carry. Her father is unemployed and suicidal. She is so horribly bullied at school that I’ve never heard a worse case, and she herself is suicidal, too. (Suicide, and the role it plays in Japanese culture, is a strong theme in this book.) She looks for affirmation in more immediate places than her grandmother can provide, and winds up offering sex for money because she is too numb to say no. In many ways, this book is terribly, deeply sad.

Ruth and her husband Oliver worry about Nao (whose name, of course, sounds like now).  As they read the diary in real time, they forget — well, Ruth forgets — that Nao’s now is their past. Ruth researches Nao and her father and her grandmother, desperately trying to help her, trying to understand what might have been her fate so they can reach out to her as she, accidentally, reached out to them. They suffer their own pain and worry on the island, as well, from ecological consequences and worries about memory loss.

And somehow, through intense pain, Nao never quite lets go. She learns about love and prayer and mindfulness from her grandmother. She develops her own voice in her diary. She finds out the truth about her uncle, who died as a kamikaze pilot in World War II, and meets a couple of ghosts. All of it gives her strength. Will it be enough?

The very end of this novel felt a little tacked-on to me, bringing in quantum theory in a way that made sense — fine — but wasn’t well woven-in with the rest of the plot. However, the entire book up to this point, and especially the depiction of modern Japanese culture, was so beautiful and moving that I’m ready to forgive it. I’ve seen several people say that they were much less interested in Ruth’s story than in Nao’s, but I really appreciated Ruth, with her losses that were quieter than Nao’s but still leaving her bewildered and bereft. I thought this was a wonderful book.

*Ruth is an obvious stand-in for Ruth Ozeki herself, and a lot of the autobiographical details coincide.

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Binny in Secret

binny in secretI am mournful to say that this is the first book by Hilary McKay that I haven’t adored. In fact, it’s the first book in yonks that I’ve had to adopt my friend Other Jenny’s practice and Read the End before I Read the Middle, because I was so anxious about the characters.

Note: this is probably just a character quirk. I do not tend to like books in which my favorite characters suffer inner torment because they are keeping an unnecessary secret.  I like it when characters speak up more or less right away and use their words, and everyone knows what’s going on, and if emotional suffering still happens after that (as it often does), then at least all the cards are on the table and we’ve acted like grownups. This is not to say that I don’t like it when villains keep secrets! That’s what villains do! Or that I don’t understand that sometimes secrets are necessary! That happens in life (or, say, in the spy community)! But let’s just say that most of Romeo and Juliet would have been totally obviated if there had been a couple of honest conversations, that’s all.

Binny in Secret (note the ominous title) is the sequel to Binny for Short, a book I absolutely loved. In this installment, the roof comes off the Cornwallis home and the family has to move into temporary lodgings at the other end of town. Binny has to go to a new school with a uniform she loathes, and all the kids hate her and start a bullying campaign. She keeps this secret because her mother seems distracted and unhappy. (!) The only thing that takes her mind off it is that she’s found a mysterious animal down by the railway tunnel, and she takes it into her mind that she has to keep the animal completely secret in order for it to be safe. (!!)  She also finds evidence that three kids lived in that house a hundred years ago, and created a sort of natural history museum there. We get flashbacks to those three kids, Clarry, Rupert, and Peter, and their story. Those flashbacks, which have real emotional weight and significance, were my very favorite part of this book.

This book was in fact very good. It has all sorts of internal resonance: feelings kept inside because they are too strong to be expressed; siblings who love each other hugely and sometimes can’t bear each other another moment; the terrible feeling when we’ve said the wrong thing but can’t take it back; the desperate need to keep something safe when we aren’t safe ourselves. But I wanted so badly for Binny to tell her secrets and let someone help her that I was unhappy for a lot of the book. I strongly, strongly recommend you read Hilary McKay and try her for yourself, though. She’s such a wonderful writer, and I’m going to keep reading her forever.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction | 1 Comment

The Call of the Wild

call of the wildMy daughter had some summer reading to do for her English class next year. She had to choose a “classic,” so she picked The Call of the Wild, by Jack London. I had actually never read it, nor anything else by London, so I decided to read it with her.

When Miranda finished it, she came in to see me. “What did you think?” I asked. “Well,” she said, and looked at me. I raised an eyebrow. “Well. It wasn’t the very best classic I’ve ever read.” And that, friends, is a fair assessment. It wasn’t terrible by any means, and there were some interesting things about it, but it was not the very best classic I’ve ever read.

The best and the worst thing about this book is that Jack London is ALL IN. He is a storyteller the way the Ancient Mariner is a storyteller, staring you in the eyes and not letting you go. He is going to tell you what it’s like to be a dog-turning-wolf in the Klondike if it costs him his sanity. First is he going to describe the impossible conditions that kill animals and men (and the very occasional woman):

A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but a laughter more terrible than any sadness — a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the Sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild.

Can you feel it? Can you? CAN YOU. Then he is going to tell you about the dog’s emotions and motivations:

He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move.

All of this is wonderful if you are convinced by it, and embarrassing if you are not. I am not. London has a Darwinian-derived (but not really scientific) theory that there is something morally good about being the best, the biggest, the strongest, the fastest, the most cunning. I don’t subscribe to such a theory, and I’d be interested to hear Toni Morrison talk about London’s obsession with whiteness.

One observation: as I was reading this, it reminded me very strongly of Kipling. Part of it is the phrases like “the law of club and fang,” which could actually have been cribbed from Kipling, and part of it is the use of dialect, and part of it is the power of his storytelling. Maybe, too, there’s something about writing from outside mainstream society, where people engage in behavior they otherwise wouldn’t, and it becomes feasible to write from the point of view of an animal. Does he remind anyone else of Kipling?

In any case, he led a fascinating life and was an astonishing Socialist, but this didn’t make me want to go on and read a lot more of his work, I’m afraid. What about you?

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 15 Comments

The Wine-Dark Sea

The 16th book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series finds the Surprise still in the South Pacific, en route to South America, where Stephen has a secret spying mission. The journey so far has been complicated, with multiple delays along the way, making this the fourth book about it. And it’s in this book that they finally make it to Peru.

A lot happens in this book, and the plot moves forward considerably. It’s one of the more exciting and eventful books in the series. So what stands out to me?

  • Martin, Stephen’s friend and fellow naturalist, becomes irretrievably ill and unable to stay at sea.
  • The Surprise picks up a man named Dutourd who is attempting to start a free-thinking colony in the south seas. This causes complications, both among the crew and in Stephen’s mission.
  • Sam Panda appears again! I love Sam Panda, Jack’s son by an African woman. He’s Jack’s physical double, only young and black. I enjoy how much these two love each other and how much they want to see each other. Initally, however, Sam only gets to see Stephen, but, in his role as a priest, he’s able to help Stephen with his efforts in support of Peru’s independence.
  • Jack and Stephen find a group of enslaved men on one of the ships that they take. Slavery being illegal in Britain at the time, they are able to free the men, but they then have to figure out where they can leave them where they won’t risk being enslaved again. Sam Panda helps with this, too.
  • Stephen travels into the mountains of Peru, gets spat on by llamas and gets to see many new to him species of plant and animal. He also becomes friends with an Incan man named Eduardo who is as devoted to the study of nature as Stephen is. The two take a little side trip and get caught in a sudden snowstorm. Stephen is lucky to survive with the loss of only a few toes.
  • Jack also experiences serious physical challenges. His eye is injured in a battle and must be kept covered. That would be easy enough if his ship didn’t get caught in a massive windstorm that nearly tears it apart. The adrift weeks at sea bring him nearly to starvation, and when he’s found, he’s worse off than anyone has seen him.
  • There’s a marvelous reunion between Stephen and Jack when Stephen attempts to pilot a balsa-wood craft out to meet the Surprise.
  • There’s a battle in the ice that leaves the Surprise stranded  without mast or rudder. But by the end of the book, they’re on their way home. Whew!
Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 6 Comments